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Howard's End: All Is Not Right In NZ Courts

No system of human justice is perfect, but we must all be concerned when the NZ Law Commission has received an unprecedented number of submissions who see the court system as expensive, slow, traumatising and exclusive when a devotion to justice must be the imperative. Maree Howard writes.

The Law Commission, working on a review of the courts, says that it has received an unprecedented number of submissions from the public.

Commission president, Justice Bruce Robertson said: " It has brought home to us with enormous power and clarity that a significant segment of the New Zealand community sees the courts as captured by an elitist minority, operating in an environment that is alien and excluding, and where the possibility of obtaining redress or assistance is beyond reach."

"Given the critical role the courts have in maintaining our civil and democratic society, we cannot ignore the strongly held views of a significant segment of New Zealanders that courts are simply too expensive, too slow and traumatising and excluding to the extent that they are seen as irrelevant," he said.

Justice Robertson said radical changes were not needed.

They are!

The legal system has a lot of safeguards built into it - when they are working at optimum level.

Justice Robertson recognises that the courts ought to be operating at optimum level when he says: " Rather, I am in no doubt that the current system is providing fair, reliable and sustainable justice when it operates at optimum level."

However, the unprecedented numbers of submissions to the Law Commission review of the courts tells him something quite different - they are seen as expensive, slow, traumatising, exclusive and elitist.

That is not "optimum level."

The fact is, the court system, for increasing numbers of people, does not always work well.

A comparison with the legal system today with, say, the system of 40 years ago will show that many things have improved to repair defects.

However, we live in a high-tech age and the courts have simply not moved as quick as they ought to. For example, ordinary New Zealander's can obtain ready access to case law from all the Australian courts and legal systems through the Internet.

Type in www.austlii.edu.au and see what I am talking about.

Try getting that same level of free service in New Zealand and you will be deeply disappointed. It's almost as though justice in New Zealand is something which we ought not to be told about.

The somewhat peremptory way in which some judges deal with litigants is also of concern. There are some excellent judges in our court system but there are some who treat people like they are cattle.

A point Justice Robertson also makes when he says some submissions perceived the courts as "cattle yards."

There are many user-friendly ways where our courts can come up to speed very quickly. All they need to do is follow the tried and true systems from the overseas jurisdictions, including our closest neighbour Australia. Then some of our judges need to instill in themselves a devotion to justice.


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